A Look Back in History: Mayor Rolph and the Passing of the Raker Act

Mayor James Rolph took office in early 1912, at which time the city did not yet have permission to construct the Hetch Hetchy reservoir. Rolph, having cited water as one of his campaign priorities, took charge of the city’s lobbying efforts in Washington D.C. By early 1913, proponents of the Hetch Hetchy plan concluded that the only hope for federal permission was through an act of Congress.

The situation was ripe for success. New President Woodrow Wilson had appointed Franklin Lane as his Interior Secretary. Lane was a Californian and already a supporter of the proposed reservoir. Rolph’s city attorneys drafted a bill which was introduced to Congress by Congressman John Raker whose district included Hetch Hetchy.

Portrait of James Rolph, Governor of California and Mayor of San Francisco. Copies from original in S.F. Examiner Library.

The lobbying forces of San Francisco went into high gear. Rolph, joined by engineer Michael O’Shaughnessy, city clerk John S. Dunningan, and others from the Rolph administration made one or more journeys to Washington D.C. And it came to pass, Wilson signed the Raker Act in late 1913.

Other factoids about the Mayor also known as “Sunny Jim” (his theme song was “There Are Smiles That Make You Happy”) follow. Rolph was the longest serving Mayor of San Francisco, holding office from January 1912 to January 1931. He had in fact been asked to run in 1909, but chose to wait until the election of 1911.

Rolph was a native San Franciscan, born in the city in 1869 and attended school in the Mission district. In 1915 Rolph appeared as himself in an early documentary film titled Mabel and Fatty Viewing the World’s Fair at San Francisco, which was directed by and starred Fatty Arbuckle. In 1924, Rolph again appeared as himself in the comedy short film, Hello, Frisco.

Board of Public Works, Hetch Hetchy, M.M. O’Shaughnessy at O’Shaughnessy Dam dedication.

Rolph had entered the shipping business in 1900, an activity in which he continued to be involved while Mayor. During the first decade of the 20th century, Rolph also served as president of two banks, one of which he had helped establish. While in office he directed the Ship Owners and Merchants Tugboat Company and the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. Rolph also served as vice-president of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

In 1930 Rolph was elected as the 27th Governor of California, an office he served from January 1931 until his passing in June 1934. He was only 64 at the time, but what a whirlwind of life his had been.